Musichound R&B & Blues: The Essential Album Guide
Visible Ink Press
I love record guides. I read record guides. I don’t just thumb through them looking for assessments of particular recordings or artists, I read these things for pleasure. Sick I know, but if pressed to name my favorite form of literature I’d have to fess up and admit it’s the capsule album review. I’m not proud.
So, when a new guide comes out, you can bet I’ll clear a fat space on my shelf for it. Recently, I’ve had to clear space for two. Visible Ink Press, publishers of the wonderful Videohound film guides (I love those, too) has launched a series of “Musichound Album Guides” for different genres. Their rock’n’roll guide has been out for a while, but they’ve recently added blues and r&b volumes to the list. A jazz volume is due out shortly. So, how are they? Not too bad. These new books should give what previously was the most up-to-date and thorough record guide series, the All Music volumes, a run for its money.
The All Music books contain a lot of entries and fairly complete album lists, but they are very sloppily compiled and edited. They don’t do a very good job of pointing out which of an artist’s albums are best, despite using star ratings. And often an album is listed and rated, but there’s no description of the contents or explanation of why it received the rating it did.
The writing, editing and organization of the Musichound series are much better. The listings begin with a short bio and then list the artist’s best recordings under a “what to buy” heading. This is followed by a “what to avoid” list. Both these sections tell you why particular albums are worthwhile and why others are wretched. Albums that fall somewhere in between are grouped under “the rest” without descriptions. I’d like to see brief descriptions of these albums, too, but that what would make for a much thicker book. All the albums are rated with bones, five being best, one being worst, and a “woof!’ being just plain awful. There’s a lot of humor in the writing, which is mostly absent in the All Music volumes, and a refreshing lack of snottiness, which abounds in some record guides (the “Penguin Guide to Jazz” being a notable example). The entries in each of the Musichound volumes are supplied by dozens of contributors, which helps to ensure a diversity of opinion. Another nice feature is indexes detailing books and periodicals of interest to blues/r&b fans, websites dedicated to blues and r&b artists, and national listings of music festivals and radio stations. The blues guide also has an amusing “category index,” in which you can get a quick list of blues artists grouped by nickname, i.e. the “blinds” (Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Lemon Jefferson, etc.) and the “bigs” (Bill Broonzy, Mama Thornton, Joe Turner, and the rest). Each guide also comes with a sampler CD stuck inside the back cover.
As with any record guide, there are things to quibble with. We’re dealing with matters of opinion here, don’t you know. Purists might wonder, for example, how Beck managed to get listed in both the blues and r&b books. He’s certainly a genre jumper, and I can sort of see him in the r&b book, what with the hip hop connection and all. But I have trouble seeing him rubbing elbows with Lightnin’ Hopkins and Howlin’ Wolf. But what the hell, I’ve got more serious things to worry about. Like, how did Duke Ellington end up with an entry in the r&b book? Now, I think Ellington deserves mention in any book about American music, but this just reinforces the slipperiness of r&b as a category title. It’s got more identity problems than jazz. But here’s my deal: If you’re going to put Duke in, you might as well also insert Miles Davis, whose electric output has had an undeniable influence on funk, hip hop, etc. But there’s no mention of him. Just goes to show the trouble with walls. And, because each of the books is written by a different set of contributors, there are differences of opinion between them. For instance, the blues volume warns rookies to steer clear of Muddy Waters’ “Chess Box,” warning of harsh sound, whereas the r&b book urges you to pick it up first thing.
In situations where guides like this would be really handy it’s difficult to know which advice to follow. For example, the Jimi Hendrix catalog was recently remastered for the second time in three years, so you might be wondering which versions sound best? In this case, the blues guide advises against the most recent reworkings, while the r&b book says those are the only ones worth having.
Which only proves that as fun and as occasionally useful such guides can be, ultimately, you’ve got to trust your own ears.